Innovation: After a Struggle, SBIRS Launches Successfully

An Atlas V rocket launches the SBIRS GEO-3 satellite on Friday, Jan. 20. (Photo: United Launch Alliance, LLC)

In a fitting start to 2017, which will see the 70th anniversary of the U.S Air Force, the third Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) satellite was successfully delivered to geosynchronous transfer orbit on Friday evening. The Atlas V 401 rocket lifted off from SLC-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at the beginning of the launch window, and delivered the satellite precisely to its intended orbit.

Once again, the final count was very smooth. But it was not without a struggle to get to that point as SBIRS GEO Flight 3 was originally scheduled to launch last summer, but was delayed due to a combination of issues on both the spacecraft and the launch vehicle, as well as Hurricane Matthew. That led to the first attempt on Thursday afternoon, during which the integrated ULA/Air Force/Aerospace team demonstrated significant innovation and agility by utilizing historical family data and prelaunch test data to clear the rocket for launch after losing several key sensors.

Unfortunately, while the rocket was finally ready to go near the end of the launch window, the launch had to be scrubbed for the day due to interference from an aircraft in the range safety hazard area.

The next day was picture-perfect though, and things couldn’t have gone smoother. As they say, “all’s well that ends well,” and this launch also represented a fitting end to the careers of two retiring Aerospace engineers, Paul Russell and Tom Duncan, both of whom have supported Atlas V since the very first launches.  Both were called out for special recognition during the postflight quick-look reviews and Duncan, the Eastern Range Atlas V systems director, was acknowledged not only for his contributions to the success of many missions, but for having been a valuable mentor to numerous Air Force officers when they were stationed at Cape Canaveral. These included United Launch Alliance Vice President Laura Maginnis, the mission director, Col. Kent Nickle, and Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, who noted,  “Tom has a very distinct voice, and whenever I heard it on the net, I always felt comfortable in making the decision to launch.”

This was the 116th successful ULA launch, the 69th Atlas V launch, and the 36th National Security Space launch on an Atlas V rocket.

Editor’s Note: Randolph “Randy” Kendall, a graduate of the University of Michigan, is Aerospace vice president of Launch Program Operations.

—Randolph L Kendall